World of Warcraft: Legion is the first WoW expansion released in my adult, working life. As a result I haven’t found as much time as I would like to protect Azeroth from the demon invasion; it’s stressful having two actual jobs instead of just “alchemy” and “herbalism”. But even from my brief time with the new content it’s apparent to me that Blizzard has finally learned how to correctly market and create content that engages with the nostalgia inherent in its decade old game.
The previous expansion, World of Warcraft: Warlords of Draenor, is an example of a failed attempt to engage with nostalgia. Set before the events of WoW, this expansion forces the player to go back in time to fight the original, demon-powered Orcish horde. Originally planned to coincide with the release of the film, the intention was for film audiences to witness the birth of the Horde, and then enter the game to stop it. But the film wasn’t released at the same time – it was moved to not coincide with the box office juggernaut that is Star Wars. When Warcraft: The Beginning was eventually released, it didn’t really match up narratively with Warlords of Draenor in any way: sure Gul’Dan is the main antagonist in both, but the main protagonists in the game – Grom Hellscream, Maaraad, and Yrel – either have no dialogue or don’t appear at all in the film. As a result Warlords of Draenor was a hackneyed expansion built around a multi-media experiment that never actually came to fruition. It is easily the worst expansion Blizzard has released.
But Blizzard has learnt from this mistake, and since then their marketing machine has become much more nuanced and refined. For the past year or so Blizzard have been referencing one thing across film, Hearthstone and WoW itself: Karazhan.
The debut raid of the games second expansion, The Burning Crusade, Karazhan is still considered by many to be the greatest piece of content in World of Warcraft’s decade long history. Previously the residence of Medivh, the traiterous mage who first summoned demons to the world, the Tower of Karazhan has been corrupted by his influence. As a result, 10 players are tasked with adventuring through these sprawling halls, exorcising the ghosts and looting twelve bosses. As content goes it’s challenging, visually pleasing and more importantly fun! Ironically these haunted halls are amongst the most “lived in” places within the game. It’s also extremely memorable – everyone remembers the first time they entered the tower. This makes it an incredible thing to return to in terms of nostalgia; it doesn’t call back to the history of the world, a la Warlords of Draenor, but rather calls to the players own interaction with the content. MMOs work not because of worldbuilding, but because the player can interact with the world in a unique way of their choosing. Karazhan is a metonymy of that.
The first call back to the haunted tower by Blizzard is Warcraft: The Beginning. Note I said Blizzard, and not Duncan Jones there. I quite enjoyed the film, but this is a far cry from auteur driven cinema; rather the film is a 2 hour manifesto to meet the interests of Activision Blizzard and Legendary Entertainment. As a result it’s hard not to see the significance of Karazhan as a location within the narrative as part of an overall advertising strategy. But that’s not to say said strategy isn’t effective – in fact is was the sole reason I enjoyed the film! In many ways Warcraft: The Beginning isn’t actually the story of the first contact between Orcs and Humans – it’s the story of how the Tower of Karazhan gets corrupted.
What next in the Blizzards marketing strategy? A Karazhan themed Hearthstone adventure! One Night In Karazhan is PvE content built around a simple premise: what if, instead of being corrupted by demons and starting an interplanetary war, Medivh held a Boogie Nights-esque party in his tower? This is a silly, “sideways” look at the Warcraft universe that is funny to both newbies to canon and those well-versed in the lore. Now I could talk for hours about how the new cards released with the expansion will change the game (I’ve played over 5000 games of Hearthstone after all) but instead I want to draw attention to how this expansion encourages you to engage with nostalgia. After-all, the subversion of the “haunted house” trope is much more powerful is you have previous knowledge of the Karazhan raid in WoW. Thus when the player journeys through the expansion, trying to save the party, they not only laugh at the new take on certain characters and themes, but are simultaneously reminded of the original raid on a subconscious level. By returning to Karazhan in a new and exciting way, Blizzard simultaneously draws upon the good will held by long term players to WoW when it was at its best.
This brings us full circle, up to the release of World of Warcraft patch 7.0 last month. Before the release of every major expansion, Blizzard puts out a pre-patch to introduce the significant mechanical changes an expansion brings, as well as start the narrative thread the player will follow over the next two years. Any guesses for where this breadcrumb narrative takes the player? That’s right Karazhan; now players return to the raid solo to try and repel a demon invasion trying to steal the magical knowledge for their own.
If you’re reading this without any first hand knowledge of WoW you might think I might have been all Karazhan-ed out after the film and Hearthstone expansion. Perhaps the more savvy of you might think the repetition of existing content to be a flimsy way to introduce a new £30 expansion. But no, I can’t possibly over-exaggerate how effective this one small quest was. When I opened the portculis and stepped through the door once more, I was instantly reminded of the first time I tried (and failed) to raid the place. It called back to a time when WoW felt more alive, more social and when content wasn’t built around loot but rather having fun. Blizzard finally created an organic, nostalgic response in me and all it took was them giving the player a new reason to return to older content.
As I said, I haven’t played that much of Legion yet but from the little I have seen it feels like Blizzard finally understands how to market and create a game that has existed in public consciousness for over a decade. Warlords of Draenor was a failed attempt at harnessing nostalgia, because it focused solely on a “nostalgia” for the world Blizzard had built. But world building and a deep lore isn’t what marks an MMO as special. MMOs are unique as they revolve around the way players interact with the virtual world; World of Warcraft thrives because the player creates an emotional attachment to their character and the friends they make whilst playing. With World of Warcraft: Legion, and to a lesser extent Hearthstone, Blizzard is finally engaging in the inherent “nostalgia” built around playing MMOs and are exploiting it brilliantly both in terms of marketing and gameplay.
Last week they announced the first major content patch of Legion – three prizes for guessing where it’s set…